Initiative assists young men of color

The collaborative We Matter Now creates pathways of opportunity.
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Principals in We Matter Now are, from left, Henry Sapp, Dondreá Brown and Cole Williams. Courtesy We Matter Now

Three Black-owned, West Michigan nonprofits have come together with a common goal of creating pathways to opportunity for boys and young men of color through a new, collaborative initiative. 

The creation of We Matter Now will bring together strengths-based, ongoing programming intended to help Black and brown “at-potential” youth to feel safe and empowered to build deeper, stronger relationships and become successful leaders in their communities. Dondreá Brown of Young Money Finances, Henry Sapp of Better Wiser Stronger and Cole Williams of the Delta Project joined forces to create a safe and encouraging space for young men to become agents of positive change. Multiyear fiscal support is coming from Heart of West Michigan United Way.

We Matter Now will serve as a resource broker to equip local and often underserved young men with the necessary tools to close the gap on education, wellness and financial achievement. 

The initiative will offer a spring conference, extended summer programming and an August celebration for approximately 60 boys of color in grades 9-11 living in West Michigan. The inaugural conference will be held Friday, April 22, at Grand Valley State University’s Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids. Those interested in joining the first cohort will experience a free day of education, recognition, celebration and connection.

“Recognizing the power of words, We Matter Now seeks to serve ‘at-potential’ boys and young men of color, flipping the narrative that too often begins with ‘at-risk’ youth,” said Brown, of Young Money Finances. “Our initiative strives to create a safe space, working to provide Black and brown high school students with the tools, skills, resources and relationships needed to face challenges within their community.”

In 2021, United Way put its Transformation Strategy in motion with the intent to close the economic and achievement gap for people of color in Kent County. The strategy led United Way to create an Opportunity Initiative that would provide financial and educational support through a one-time grant to grassroots organizations that were founded or are led by Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) individuals and already are successfully addressing systemic change. 

United Way then brought Sapp, Williams and Brown into the conversation and handed them the reins to create something that would grant the three nonprofit leaders the opportunity to impact the individuals at the heart of each of their organizational missions — young men of color.

“United Way is funding the We Matter Now initiative because we saw how intimately these three organizations work to empower young Black and brown men who struggle to achieve due to structural racism and other forms of oppression,” said Shannon Blackmon-Gardner, vice president of community impact for Heart of West Michigan United Way. “We are so excited to support their work and see the change, growth and impact that this collaborative will have on our young men of color.”

Sapp, of Better Wiser Stronger, said Heart of West Michigan United Way approached the three organizations not knowing the best way to reach their common goal, which granted the new team an opportunity to create something they felt was needed to best impact their community.

“We were able to put our voice into play to come together, which I think is the greatest thing to me — is three men coming together with one vision,” Sapp said. “… Research shows it’s critical for young people to have adults who believe in and support them in order to develop a positive sense of their future.

Brown, Sapp and Williams emphasized the importance of the collaborative approach that brought three men of color from varying nonprofits together to support a common mission: encouraging Black and brown youth to become something they don’t always get to see. The three leaders are hyper-focused on providing a living example that displays three men of color working collaboratively to make positive change in their communities beyond the framework of Black History Month.

“That’s so important for us, is because one of the things that we want to do is shift the narratives and stereotypes that say that Black and brown men cannot collaboratively partner and work with each other,” said Williams, of The Delta Project. “And even though that is a stereotype, the truth of the matter is that it’s not visually told nor is our narrative often shared in the world of media around the fact that there are collaborative partnerships and brothers working together to serve one mission as it relates to serving Black and brown boys, women and children in our communities, but it’s not often something that’s talked about or glorified.”

The theme of the 2022 We Matter Now conference — Our Vision, Our Voice, Our Choice — also highlights the importance of creating a space where participants feel empowered to become active partners in designing programs that will offer them the most support. The group’s goal is to curate a memorable, judgment-free experience that will, as Sapp said, “make (participants) feel like young kings,” and help them feel comfortable to express their authentic selves.

Sessions will focus on financial education, healthy behaviors and conflict-resolution training to equip cohort members with the tools, skills, resources and relationships to be successful.

Better Wiser Stronger will offer its Blueprint Journal workshop derived from its boys-to-men curriculum. The workshop helps to identify support groups and mentors to lean on when forging a path to success.

The Delta Project will host its Delta Conversation, which uses video editing to promote personal storytelling in a meaningful and digestible way. Williams said the program focuses not just on the story of each individual’s life, but more importantly, on the story they tell themselves.

“The goal for me is to really talk about self-talk and how we tell our stories and what those stories mean to us, versus in our minds, and also, how those stories reflect out in our environment,” Williams said. “And then (we’ll) also talk about the superhero powers that come with being able to create healthy relationships and boundaries by using superhero characters that I’ve created for my comic book series.”

Young Money Finances will offer three sessions — Young Money Managers, Young Entrepreneurs and Young Investors — that will cover a range of topics, including sharpening money management skills, starting a business and best practices surrounding investing. Brown said the theme, Count the Cost, will help to facilitate critical conversations to teach students how to have healthy conversations about money.

“We know that there are costs to everything, and sometimes, our youth are embracing the term(s) ‘secure the bag’ or ‘fast money,’ right? What is the cost of that? Then, we’ll be addressing some of the issues behind how we take (participants) from welfare to wealth … we’ll be talking about scarcity versus abundance,” Brown said. “How do you become the provider in poverty?”

Brown expects the tough and honest conversations will empower young men who hold varying responsibilities as providers.

“Some of them may be fathers. Some of them may be responsible for money in their community. Some of the kids that we talk to are one of the main income sources for the family, even though there are other income sources, they’re working and they’re going to school,” he said.

All three organizations will continue to offer educational, resource and connection support to those who attend the April conference through ongoing summer programs.

By offering relevant, culturally responsive programming, We Matter Now’s goal is to create positive ripple effects that will impact future generations and others beyond the reach of immediate participants.

“We’re trying to learn so much through this process, but most importantly, we know we can’t do this alone. We are open to volunteers … different levels of support, because it’s bigger than us, and it’s going to take more than us,” Brown said.

Collectively, the group hopes the project will serve as a blueprint that can be implemented by other underserved communities to uplift and empower those beyond the framework of their immediate programming.

“That’s one of the big pieces that we’re really wanting to move into, is recognizing that we are very system-heavy and that in order for kids to thrive, they need to have villages and community involvement. (We Matter Now creates) a space for us to cultivate that. … In order for strong villages to thrive, you have to have organizations work and collaborate together to make that happen, and so this is just the first step to many more,” Williams said.

Additional information is available at the websites for Young Money Finances, Better Wiser Stronger and the Delta Project.

A temporary landing page for We Matter Now also is available online, and a permanent website is in the works.

Those interested in participating in We Matter Now’s first cohort can sign up online.

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